Canada. Directed by Adam MacDonald, 2014. Starring Missy Peregrym, Jeff Roop. 91 minutes.
Horror clichés become popular for a reason: when done right, they work. Take Backcountry, the first feature-length screenwriting and directorial effort from Adam MacDonald (better known as an actor) and a textbook example of how to make a horror movie about people lost in the wilderness that not only doesn’t suck but is actually very good.
Our subjects are Jenn (Missy Peregrym, MacDonald’s Rookie Blue co-star) and Alex (Jeff Roop), a young couple spending a romantic weekend camping in a Canadian provincial park. Of course Alex thinks he knows these woods like the back of his hand, so he refuses to take a map. Of course he doesn’t want Jenn spending the entire weekend texting on her phone, so he sneaks it out of her backpack and leaves it in the car. Of course they become lost, lose their supplies, and attract a hungry black bear’s attention.
This is boilerplate stuff, even to the extent that you can make a solid guess as to who survives the film before you even start watching it. (If a man and a woman go into the wilderness together in a horror movie–in general, but especially if they’re a couple–you know which one’s not coming out alive.) Backcountry doesn’t transcend the clichés but MacDonald uses them effectively. Key to this is the relationship between Jenn and Alex.
It’s practically a given that horrific events in the middle of nowhere will destroy a couple (Honeymoon), always assuming they weren’t doomed from the first scene (The Frozen–not the Adam Green thriller or the Disney movie–which actually has a number of plot elements in common with Backcountry). Backcountry bucks tradition: Alex and Jenn clearly have issues they need to work on, but the two clearly love each other and have a solid relationship. Since the film is a slow burn–the bear is a persistent threat for about half the movie, but we don’t actually see it until almost an hour in–this is a very good thing.
The lead actors both put in fine performances and have credible chemistry with each other. Peregrym, in particular, does “tough but pretty” much better than many actresses much better known for the type, and is equally confident when Jenn needs to be vulnerable as she is when she needs to grit her teeth and radiate steely, grim determination.
MacDonald keeps the pace tight and brisk, deploying standard horror/thriller filmmaking tricks such as “shaky-cam” and “drop the audio and replace it with a high-pitched drone” effectively without ever abusing them. This is a film which really makes you feel exactly what it’s like to find yourself lost in the woods. My one complaint is that MacDonald puts a bit too much emphasis on certain foreshadowing elements. The superb post-rock-influenced score by Canadian duo Frères Lumières underlines and emphasizes the action without ever becoming obtrusive.
Backcountry isn’t a bold new fresh take on a beloved set of horror tropes; on the contrary, it’s largely predictable. What it does do is use those tropes well, serving the final product of a film which reminds us all why “lost in the wilderness” became a classic plot in the first place.